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Not slowing down: Joubert giving pairs a shot

After long singles career, French legend teams with Katarina Gerboldt
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Brian Joubert has stayed busy after announcing the end of his singles career, hitting the touring circuit, dabbling in coaching and making a transition into pairs skating. -AFP

French skating superstar Brian Joubert is known as a man of skating, but he is also a man of words. For the last four years or so, he had envisioned three main activities for his post-competitive future: touring, coaching and pairs skating. The past few months have seen him tour extensively, and he is on his way to establishing himself as a coach -- a prospect that many had laughed at. Joubert is now proving his doubters wrong.

Joubert left the Sochi ice quite satisfied with his last Olympic performance. Even though he did not rank well (he finished in a somewhat controversial 13th), Joubert skated two nearly flawless programs -- far better than in his previous Olympic appearances. Right after he finished his free skate in Sochi, he confirmed that it would mark the end of his competitive solo career. He then embarked on successful tours throughout Russia, France and then Kazakhstan.

In mid-May, just two weeks before the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Joubert settled in Caen, a community in Normandy, France, to join the only figure skating school in the country that taught pairs.

"It's a fact," said Jean-François Ballester, who founded and leads the school, "We don't have many specialized coaches in pairs in this country."

Ballester, a French pairs champion in the 1980s, rose to relative prominence when two of his students, Daria Popova and Bruno Massot, attained a degree of international success.

At the end of the 2014 World Championships, news broke that Massot was teaming up with five-time world champion Aliona Savchenko in her continued quest of an elusive Olympic gold medal. Massot flew back from Japan to Germany, where he now practices, after the new team skated in a few exhibitions.

Joubert had talked to Ballester about his wish to try pairs as soon as the Olympic season started, during the French Masters in Orléans. Ballester was not fully sold on the idea at the time, but the coach was willing to give it a try. With Popova being single again after Massot dissolved their partnership, she had the time to spend a whole week teaching pairs to Joubert.

"She is quite experienced in pairs," Ballester said. "This will ease his early take at the sport, even though this remains quite a challenge!"

Many thought that this week would just be a for-fun trial. After all, Popova already had a new partner in sight, and left soon after to relocate in Moscow. Joubert, meanwhile, flew to Kazakhstan to tour with Denis Ten' show that took place at the end of May and early June.

Ballester had not disclosed his thoughts about Joubert's real chances for a successful competitive career in pairs. His advice, as Joubert left his school, was nonetheless clear: "If Joubert really wants to reach the highest level in pair skating, he needs to go work with the best coaches in the world, where ever they are, without losing time," Ballester recalled.

Joubert did follow Ballester's advice. Later in June, he flew to the Novogorsk training center just outside Moscow to practice with Russian skater Katarina Gerboldt under the tutelage of Oleg Vasiliev, one of the greatest competitors and coaches that pairs skating has ever seen. Vasiliev won Olympic gold and silver medals in 1984 and 1988, respectively, with Elena Valova. He also coached Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin to the Olympic gold medal in 2006.

Gerboldt, a former singles skater who finished sixth at the 2009 European Championships, turned to pairs in 2010. With her partner, Alexander Enbert, Gerboldt finished fourth in their first European championships appearance, in 2011. The duo split last April after having cometed just three times in the previous two seasons.

"I loved skating with Katarina," Joubert said to Sport-Express, a leading Russian newspaper. "We have not practiced much, but I am impressed to see how fast I improve there".

What are the real chances of Joubert skating pairs competitively with a skater like Gerboldt? At the French national level, his team would not face any strong opposition -- at least for the second spot, behind Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, who finished 10th at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Qualifying for international competitions on the Russian stage would be far more difficult, however, given the depth of Russian pairs skating. In both cases, Joubert and his non-French partner would have to wait one full season before competing on the international circuit for the duo's new country, much like Savchenko and Massot will have to sit out next season.

Would Joubert be ready to leave his French nationality, if he were to pair with Gerboldt, and live and train in Russia? Would he be ready to skate for Russia? Joubert is known as one of the most nationalistic skaters in France today, and has always been quite reluctant to leave his hometown of Poitiers.

"For the moment, I'm French, and I think I will remain French," Joubert said of the matter.

Other elements also need to be considered, and Joubert is quite open about them:

"I need to find the right partner. Do I have the temperament to work (and share responsibilities) with someone else?" Joubert wondered at the start of last season, when he was asked about his future. "I am someone rather complicated to work with," he explained then. "Also, am I really ready to start something completely new again? Am I ready to practice intensely again at all?"

On numerous occasions, Joubert has voiced his wishes to live a normal life after this competitive career, which spanned a decade and a half.

"I'd love to go back to motorcycling or skiing, and I'd love to be able to drink a glass of beer without thinking of my weight," he said.

Finally, how Joubert's back would stand the challenge of pairs skating also remains to be seen.

"It is already hurting when I am skating," Joubert explained, "so I guess that lifting a lady would not help curing it. I need to think of all this."

"Yet, I am really motivated by pairs," he offered. "I am always thrilled when I watch them. They are just fabulous. I have to say that pairs could do me a lot of good -- as a man and as a skater.

It could feel good to share emotions with someone else. It's rather difficult when you are alone. If ever I was told that I could do something in pairs, I would for sure commit to it 100 percent."

Whatever the outcome of his venture into pairs, Joubert may at least keep his two other main projects in hand: touring and coaching. He could even enrich them with his new experience of pairs skating.

Joubert has always been quite positive about his coaching future.

"It's something I have always wanted to do," he said several times.

His home rink has undergone extensive remodeling in the last two seasons and will provide him with a unique facility to open his own training center. Knowing the ABC's of pairs skating could help him launch a specific pairs program, on top of his singles skating programs.

Before embarking on his coaching career, Joubert needs to finish his French national coaching test (coaching is still ruled by a national degree in France). This may take him a couple more years.

"I would love to take a young, 4-year-old child on the ice and bring him to the top," Joubert admitted.

As for touring, the recent months have proved once more that Joubert's popularity remains intact on the world stage. Joubert just loves to be in the spotlight. He is also considered by many as one of the main promoters of athletic skating still on the ice, along with Tomáš Verner and Evgeni Plushenko. There again, pairs skating could distinguish Joubert even further from his peers. Valentina Marchei, the 2014 Italian national champion, left her options open when asked if she would consider skating pairs with Joubert.

"I will need 5-to-6 months [after the Olympics] to find out if I can skate competitively in pairs," Joubert said last October. Sport-Express announced that Joubert would go back to Russia in August. For the time being, he is back in his own town of Poitiers, considering all options.

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